A Life in Jeopardy!

Ever dreamed of being on the brainy game show? Think you could sweep the board? Yeah, Ted B. Kissell did too.

During commercial breaks Trebek would saunter over to the audience to take questions and play the witty raconteur -- with mixed success. I think his first crack was about Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Yes, yes, I'm sure of it. Someone gave a correct answer, they went to commercial, and Trebek quipped, "Is that your final answer?" It was probably the funniest thing he said all day, and it seems even funnier now that his disdain for that show in general and Regis Philbin in particular has become public. (What is professional jealousy?)

In Double Jeopardy Megan and Susan began to pull away from the man in the middle. Megan was in the lead going into Final Jeopardy. And then the generation gap reared its ugly head. The category was "Singers." The clue was: "Popular 1950s vocalist who has written the autobiographies Girl Singer and This for Remembrance." The correct response was: "Who is Rosemary Clooney?" which I sure as hell didn't know. Susan knew it, Megan did not, and there was your game.

I headed back to the green room with the other challengers. When I walked in, Megan was in the arms of a contestant coordinator, sobbing. She had confidently swept into the green room just an hour before, The Book under her arm. Now she was a blubbering mess. Megan was nearly ten years younger than I, and now she could never be on Jeopardy! again. I wondered how I would handle defeat if it came. I mean, this was it. My one and only shot. I was relieved they didn't call me for the next game.

Jeopardy! veteran Lionel Goldbart shares his wisdom
Photos by Steve Satterwhite
Jeopardy! veteran Lionel Goldbart shares his wisdom

Jeopardy! can be cruel, but it also contains moments of genuine humanity. In the next game, Brenda was in second place going into Final Jeopardy, behind a transit cop from Long Island named Rocco. Then Rocco pulled a really classy move. Instead of betting enough to beat her by a dollar if they both got it right, he bet enough to tie her. If they tied, they'd be co-champs, but as it would be her fifth win, she would be retired, she'd get a car, she'd get an automatic berth in the Tournament of Champions -- and he still wouldn't have to play her again. The gesture was for naught. Rocco got it right. Brenda got it wrong.

By the end of the day, only two players were left in the bullpen: me and Robin Carroll, a quiet yet amiable woman, also from the Atlanta area, with round spectacles and a bright smile. She gave her profession as researcher, but she told me she was really a fiction writer. Robin and I both knew we were done for the day; the coordinators told me I didn't have to stay in contestant quarantine. So I took my leave of Robin and sauntered over to the general population to watch the last game with my wife.

Jen looked over at Robin sitting all alone in the contestants' area. "She looks so sad sitting there by herself," she said.

The more appropriate gerund: Lurking.


I didn't sleep much that night. Nonetheless I felt pretty good the next day. I said a cheery hello to Robin and to the returning champion, Charles Hubert, a developer from Atlanta who had won two games already -- the last one handily. Charles looked tough, but I thought I could take him. As for Robin I didn't give her much thought.

As we took our marks before the game, I met my wife's gaze and winked. I actually was a lot less nervous than I had been when I realized I'd shown up for the wrong testing slot back in May. I knew I could beat the champ if I got into a groove on the buzzer.

Johnny Gilbert announced Robin first, and she stepped on to the stage then up on to her box. (As the tallest of the threesome by far, I was the only one not on a box.) Then I strode out, "A journalist from Miami, Florida, Ted Kissell," at your service. Then came Charles. Finally Trebek bounded out in a snappy dark-blue suit.

He rattled off the categories for the first round, which included at least one strong one for me, "Oh What a Year." I hoped to get out of the gate quickly. I did not. In fact Charles and Robin fired back answers to the first dozen questions while I stood there, in the middle, looking, well, stupid. The problem wasn't above my neck, though. I actually knew most of the answers. The problem was below my wrist.

I was following the technique Dupée had described in The Book: letting my right hand rest on the podium as I tried to buzz in. But Robin and Charles were getting in first, and they were nailing every question. A tiny voice in the back of my head started whispering. Skunked, it whispered. Blitzed. Steamrollered. Sandbagged. Bitch-slapped. Buried. Humiliated.

Then Robin selected the $500 clue from the "TV Theme Song" category, and Trebek read the answer: "Jane, his wife, daughter Judy."

I pressed my buzzer. To my amazement I heard Trebek say, "Ted."

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